Tom Whalen reflects on The Bay of Pigs at 50

300px-BayofPigsBoston University associate professor of social science Tom Whalen is an expert on the American presidency. He is the author of “A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage” where he writes about the moments that defined political careers of several US presidents. He is also a regular contributor to PoliticoArena. ¬†As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, he gives his view on the lessons learned by the invasion and its impact on the presidency of John F.¬†Kennedy.

“The main lesson to be learned from 1961 is that no president should take at face value the advice of his military and intelligence officials when it comes to invading another country. Kennedy’s generals and CIA men assured their young Commander-in-Chief of a quick and decisive victory in Cuba, despite a lack of hard evidence to back up such an extravagant claim.

“For example, Kennedy was assured that a spontaneous popular uprising would occur on the island once the invaders had landed and secured a beachhead. Of course, this was pure fantasy. Castro had already rounded up anyone he thought might pose a threat to his regime and imprisoned them. What’s more, given the historically strained relationship the US had with Cuba, complete with a number of ham-handed military interventions dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, the Cuban people understandably could not be counted on to greet this new US-backed invasion force with open arms. More likely, they viewed it as yet another example of Yankee imperialism from their colossal neighbor to the North.

“But Kennedy was not made aware of this likelihood by his advisors. Instead, he was led down the primrose path of wishful thinking and false assumptions. He would have been far better served by trusting his own reservations about the use of military force and seeking the counsel of Latin American experts outside the regular White House policy loop, which the Bay of Pigs episode demonstrates can become something of an empty echo chamber.

“Alas, he did none of this and as a result, his once promising administration suffered one of the greatest fiascos in American foreign policy history. Shades of Libya, anyone?

Contact Tom Whalen, 617-353-4785, tjw64@bu.edu